The next section in the Exploring Mormon Institute is about “The Law of Consecration.” This is a subject near and dear to my heart. While studying economics at BYU, I was reading “Approaching Zion” by Hugh Nibley. I decided it would be a good idea, instead of studying economics the “way of babylon,” to try to rewrite each lesson on economics that I was taught for the Law of Consecration.
You want a fun experience? Try telling a libertarian/highly republican set of professors you want to study everything they say in a communal-based setting, when they can’t disagree because their prophet once said it was good. The facial expressions were priceless and painful.
I planned on writing a “how to” course for bishops on common failures of the Law of Consecration. What follows will include much of that research.
I will refer heavily to the sourced timeline here. As such, there will not be many sources cited in this lesson.
People are motivated by incentives.
If there is some reason to go out and get something, people will do it. This is observable not only in the real world, but in online games. Whether or not something is “morally good,” if the incentives are lined up, people will do it. Individuals may turn it down, but society as a whole will produce someone who will do it.
People are rational.
This is an economics term which means that people try to maximize their utility.
That is to say, if you like pizza, you will eat slices of pizza until you don’t want pizza any more. You have maximized your utility from pizza.
Further, there are costs to maximizing utility. If pizza were free, we’d eat say… 5 slices, but if it costs, we may stop at two slices.
Free markets develop when rational people have incentives.
That is to say, if you strand two people on a deserted island, and they can use their time to make food or make shelter, and one person is better at making shelter, it makes sense that the second person makes food and trades for shelter. A market will develop out of that.
People have different tastes and preferences.
I don’t necessarily like oranges, and you might like them lots. Humans, by nature, are NOT homogeneous in tastes and preferences.
Even if someone has an absolute advantage, it makes sense to trade.
Constructing a house, for example. Let’s say that a man is magnificent at hammering nails AND he is also better at running wiring. Another man is good at running wiring, but horrible at hammering. It makes sense for the man who has an absolute advantage (he’s better at both) to focus on hammering and let the other man run the wiring. Even though he could do both, both men will be better off if they share the load, and produce more, than if one man tries to do it all despite him being better than the other man.
Law of Consecration: What was it really?
[T]he Partridge home was three miles from the boat landing and nine miles from Kirtland, their house made a good stopping place for those traveling to the church headquarters, and Emily recorded that ‘we had more or less of them stopping there from that time on, while we remained in Ohio. Lucy Mack Smith, the Prophet’s mother, noted in the biography of her son that when she arrived in Ohio with the rest of the Smith family, Joseph took them to the Partridge home where they “found a fine supper prepared for the entire company”‘ (http://bishoppartridge.blogspot.com/2012/05/chapter-four-law-of-consecration-and.html).
On February 4, 1831, Smith received a revelation calling Edward Partridge to be the first bishop of the church. Five days later, on February 9, 1831, Smith received another revelation detailing the Law of Consecration.
By May 27, Edward Partridge was already feeling such pressure that he wrote for help from the prophet. The response was D&C 48.
The essence of the revelation was (1) that the place of the New Jerusalem was yet to be revealed; (2) that the Saints in Ohio were to share their surplus property with new arrivals; and (3) that, if more land was needed, the newcomers were to purchase additional property.
Due to missionary efforts flooding in new members, and with many members unwilling to live in a state of “all things in common,” the Order did not really get going. John Whitmer recorded that:
The time has not yet come that the law can be fully established, for the disciples live scattered abroad and are not yet organized; our numbers are small and the disciples untaught, consequently they understand not the things of the kingdom.
Whitmer further noted that part of the problem was that “some of the disciples who were flattered into this Church… thought that all things were to be in common, therefore they thought to glut themselves upon the labors of others.”
In economics terms, what John Whitmer is identifying is that the incentives for the Law of Consecration are out of whack. The individuals who have the most to gain (the poor) are likely to sign up in droves whereas the costs for the wealthy to join is very high; they are more likely to stay away.
And when the droves of poor find out there is no free lunch, but rather they will be told how to be successful, they have every incentive to leave because, after all, once they are rich they have more to lose.
My advice to bishops was to realize that living the Law of Consecration was going to be an eternal struggle of the poor who milk the system, the poor who are only poor because of temporary setbacks, and the wealthy who don’t want to contribute. This is true in the modern welfare system of the church and bishops currently deal with it plenty. Of course, they also deal with the organization siphoning off money in order to build malls, elk ranches, and other things that benefit the wealthy heads of the church instead of using it to help the poor.
The United Order
The Order’s full name invoked the city of Enoch [according to Brigham Young] described in Latter Day Saint scripture as having such a virtuous and pure-hearted people that God had taken it to heaven.
The United Order established egalitarian communities designed to achieve income equality, eliminate poverty, and increase group self-sufficiency. The movement had much in common with other communalist utopian societies formed in the United States and Europe during the Second Great Awakening which sought to govern aspects of people’s lives through precepts of faith and community organization. However, the Latter Day Saint United Order was more family and property oriented (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Order).
In the early days, everyone simply agreed to give property to share. However, when Leman Copley contributed 59 acres to the poor Colesville saints, recently moved from Palmyra, the story changed. Leman was excommunicated and demanded his property back. When the church refused he took it to the county courts, who awarded him not only the land, but all the improvements to it.
And hence began the long tradition of God changing his mind due to lawyers faster than changing due to foresight, inspiration, or revelation.
After that, handing deeds over became part of the Law of Consecration. Edward Partridge, many of the Colesville saints, and others were then instructed by revelation to move to Jackson County, Missouri. Once there, Joseph spent a few days and then bailed on them, leaving poor Edward to manage a fledgling community with almost no insight on how to run the program.
I want you to think of a company where the VPs are all dreamers. They sit and think about how ideal the universe could be. Then they leave the details to the managers below them. I have worked for such a company.
The next section of what happened in the story of the Law of Consecration mirrors what I have seen at various companies when dreamers come up with ideas like “microwaves that can produce cold instead of hot” and leave the details to the managers and staff to actually implement.
Edward immediately sees the problem that if people can leave the order and take their property, that the incentives are wrong. So he corrects it. He tells people they cannot take their lands once contributed if they leave the church. Joseph quickly writes a letter to Edwards telling him he is doing it wrong.
Meanwhile, Joseph sends missionaries throughout the land to teach of the importance of gathering to Zion. The poor, hearing that they’ll all have everything in common, pack up and move in droves, typically spending everything they had just to get to Zion. In the words of Edward’s counselor, John Corrill, “the church got crazy to go up to Zion.”
They then become Edward’s problem. He realizes that there isn’t enough land for everyone coming in, despite the government opening up two development programs in the area, and that he has to deal. Many of the saints begin to squat on the land, angering the neighbors who had to pay. It becomes such a problem that Edward starts pushing for the saints to collect money to buy the land the squatters are on so they can keep the improvements.
As more people moved in, the size of the lots for “inheritance” got smaller and smaller out of necessity. If this is the model of heaven, I hope you, of the last dispensation of the fullness of times are ready for a one room apartment next to the ice-cooler for eternity because first mover advantage is certainly part of the system.
When the printing house is complete, the first thing Edward prints is advice NOT to come up to Zion, but to take time to get money and purchase land when they get there.
You can see how the incentives in the day-to-day workings did not jive with the kindly visions of Joseph and Sidney. The devil was in the details, and the saints, being economically rational and motivated by incentives, did exactly what economics would predict.
The Law of Consecration also told you what your profession was.
Again, I want you to think of a company you have worked for or know intimately. Imagine trying to decide what each person was best suited to work as. That copy-girl, should she really be in marketing? How about that analyst? Maybe he’d be a great coder if you assigned him.
You see, the Law of Consecration not only had people give away their surplus, but also directed them as to their professions. As such, Mr. Partridge noted that everyone who was coming to Zion was a farmer, and sent a letter to Joseph requesting blacksmiths and other artisans.
Rubber hits the road vs. Lofty goals in Kirtland
The letters between Sidney and Edward bantered back and forth for a good while (with some dispute about who was really in charge). Edward did his best to live a law that, for some odd reason, the details of had never been written down… neither in the New Testament nor in the Book of Mormon and the details given in the D&C were changing/shifting and against human nature.
In fact, for a principle we no longer live, it scores up as one of the topics with the most revelation related to it. Sections 48, 51, 54, 58, 64, 68, 72, 85, and 119 were all revealed directly to inquiries by Edward Partridge about management of the Law of Consecration or related to implementation of the law. That’s nearly 10 sections of the D&C we pretty much ignore today (except the last bit in 119 about tithing).
An interesting note, the procedure for disciplinary council
This procedure is founded in the D&C 42 revelation, which specifically states that bishops should be paid. Interesting that bishops are no longer paid and the consecration rules are thrown out, but the disciplinary council for adultery still remains.
To deal with the sheer number of people trying to go to Zion, a bishop’s recommend became required. You had to have money to purchase an inheritance, you had to be worthy, and you had to not be a lazy/thievin’/no good louse. This made Zion an exclusive club and would weed out people who converted for a free lunch. It also produced a control mechanism wherein the bishop could dictate what was going to happen.
This resulted in a conformity in preferences and tastes. Bishops could send people who were more willing to eat wheat if Zion had more wheat. Bishops could send only people who were abolitionists. This resulted very quickly in the mormons voting in a block, and with the members being mostly poor squatters, it angered the neighbors quite a bit.
Now, we often hear that the apostates caused the trouble and there is some truth to that, but what we don’t hear is HOW apostates stirred up the natives to mob levels. The answer is simple. The apostates told the truth about what the church was trying to do.
Picture the following scenario. Another religion that you think is kinda kooky moves in to your neighborhood. At first 100 people move in. Let’s say Scientology, for example. They buy up houses, and start a printing company.
Then 500 people show up, and they are staying on neighbors lawns. They are putting 30 families in a house and causing sewer issues. They ignore the HOA’s warnings.
Then one of them leaves the organization. He explains that no one owns the property, but that the entire Scientology religion has decided that your backyard is where they should all live. It’s their Mecca, and they are preparing to send about 10,000 people to live in your neighborhood block; they are all going to vote to overturn the law of the land in their favor.
And when you approach the members to confirm, if in fact, this nutcase who left is telling the truth, they make no bones about that their spiritual leader has said as much.
Is there any wonder the neighbors were upset?
In 1833, the communal property (the hay bale for use by all) was lit on fire. Members were confused that Jesus Christ himself did not protect it, causing several to leave the church. On July 20th, the mob gives the Elders, that is to say the leaders, the ultimatum that they have to move in three days. The Elders refuse, seeing that selling the land or leaving was the same as showing no faith.
So the mob tars and feathers Partridge (the local leader), whips others, and destroys the printing press.
They then threaten members generally, but they started with the leaders figuring that if they could get them to move, they could foil the plans of having the whole religion on their back porch.
In 1834, a year later, the mobs would feel bad enough about what happened they would offer to buy the lands taken from the saints. Anyone who accepted the offer was excommunicated, as it was seen as an illustration of lack of faith that the Lord could provide.
The experiment of the Law of Consecration would be put off until Brigham would resurrect it in 1855, in preparation of seceding from the union in 1857, but he would not end up doing much either. In the 1870s, several more experiments would be started, but most ended by 1877 (Brigham’s death) and not a single one that was faithful to the LDS church existed by 1900.
This was not an ancillary portion of Mormonism. Sidney Rigdon preached the Law of Consecration before the book of Mormon was published, even making his own initial attempt in Kirtland. Joseph knew poverty for the first portion of his life, and spent much of his time trying to make “all things common” for saints. Clearly, the Kirtland Safety Society was another foray into how the saints could succeed financially via common ownership. Indeed, much of church history and motivations, and why people apostatized or followed Joseph, was in regard to the Law of Consecration and its fallout.
It’s a pity that the LDS do not study its failures in depth because it very clearly illustrates a program that sounds good on the outside, but absolutely fails in execution, running contrary to human nature. And simply blaming the humans, as Nibley does in “Approaching Zion,” is not fair. If we evaluate the LDS faith at its success for changing human nature, I think we’ll find that, in fact, that’s another exercise in failure of execution despite lofty goals at the origin.
“Realize that everything we have belongs to the Lord.”
This is always a section in the lessons on the Law of Consecration or tithing. I want to debunk this once and for all.
Imagine that you had a train set and that you gave it to your son. The son then played with it, not the way you thought he would (by running it on tracks), but instead by stacking up the cars and pretending it was a rocket ship.
How many of you would scold your son and force him to play with the trains the way you wanted because “it was your train set”?
When God “created the Earth for us,” He gave it to… well, us. At that point, the ownership ceased to be God’s and became “ours,” as in, the animals, plants, and humans placed on this planet (Darwin fans, I want you to know that, yes, humans are part of the animal kingdom, and that fungi and bacteria could be in that list).
At that point, the claim that “everything we have comes from God” ceases to be valid for “why you should give everything to an organization,” let alone that such an organization would need to firmly establish that by giving to it, one was actually giving to God.
Like, by having God sign the checks.